Remembering mass slaughter…

 

owens-grave

100 years after the beginning of the first modern industrial world wide war, how do we remember?

The quality of our remembering seems to be very important as we humans require the same lessons over and over again if we are ever to learn anything. Empires rise insatiably and claw at one another ever more effectively.

Yet still there is a danger that we remember the dead only as some kind of noble sacrifice in a titanic struggle for goodness, freedom and the rightness of our national cause. But there is no rightness in Empire. For one to rise, another must fall. And there must always be casualties.

So how should we remember?

I found myself first moved by the Tower of London poppies installation, then deeply troubled by it. Troubled because it is one sided, one dimensional. It records only our dead, pouring out of the symbolic Tower of London, itself at the very centre of the old Empire, now overshadowed by the high rise monstrosities of the City of London financial buildings.

Blood should be gushing from the gutters thereabouts, not trailing in a delecate flush of elegant ceramic flowers.

How should we remember?

Perhaps the best way might be to consider a world without Empire. To imagine how we might strive for peace, not conquest. How we might evolve systems that share resources rather than exulting in avarice and subordinating all morality to economic growthism. Is an alternative really so impossible?

I heard a poem recently, written by a young German called lfred Lichtenstein, who was born in 1889 in Berlin, and studied law there until 1913, when he joined a Bavarian regiment for a year’s military service. At the beginning of World War I he was in Belgium, and was killed in action the following year, September 1914, in Vermandovillers. Lichtenstein had published only one small collection of poems, Die Dämmerung, published the year before his death.

In 1913, the year before the beginning of the Great War, he wrote this poem. Imagine it in the context of that river of British poppies;

Prophecy

Soon there’ll come—the signs are fair—
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.

The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.

With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.

Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn.

1913
—Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

 

Falling into the arms of the Empire…

genesis

For years now we have had a more or less regular ‘housegroup’, which meets (as decreed somewhere in the Bible) on Tuesday evenings. A few months ago we moved out of the living room into a pub- it was time to change things around a bit. We have been using the shape of some of Brian McLaren’s writing to aid our discussion- from ‘A new kind of Christianity’. It is a great book, and has started to put some firmness into parts of my faith that had been decidedly muddied by all of the Emerging Church discussions and debates. (Not that I regret a single question mark!)

Last week we continued a discussion about how we might understand the storyline of the Bible. McLaren (or Bazzer as we decided to call him) suggested that many of us had become used to reading the whole of the Bible backwards through all those towering figures of our theological landscape, back through the Reformation, into the middle ages, then the dark ages, and in particular, the days of the Holy Roman Empire, which Bazzer considers the real cusp of the matter. At this point the new religion (Christianity) became mixed up not only with Empire, but also with Greco-Roman philosophy. The end result it that it is really hard to see backwards because of all the edifices that we have built along the way.

Read the book for more detail on all this, but we tried to chew a little on the Polarity of Greco-Roman thought- giving us the polar opposites of Platonic perfection and the fallen state of mankind. We did this by looking again at those early stories in Genesis- of Adam and Eve with their troubled offspring, the subsistence hunter-gatherers who became farmers, then city builders, and fanally Empire makers- the rise/fall of man.

Here, the Roman Zeus- living in a removed, perfect state, setting impossible goals for his ephemeral people to reach towards, and seeking to rescue a few only be the skin of their teeth (eventually through a legalistic confidence trick with his son Jesus) starts to come unraveled. Zeus is replaced by Elohim.

Looking backwards, we read the early stories of Genesis in the Greco-Roman philosophical polarity- perfection/fallen. The garden was perfect, and as we mucked it all up, we were cast out, imperfect, therefore God could not be around us- Plato again.

But Elohim never mentions perfection- he talks of things being ‘good’, or even ‘very good’. In these stories, the journey from the garden is not one of lost perfection, but rather lost innocence. Rather than going from a perfect state casting us out into the darkness, Elohim makes clothing, avoids issuing the death penalty as promised to those who eat the fruit of the tree, and so on and so on. Elohim constantly engages, constantly circles back into the rise/fall of mankind. Even when they start empire building.

As we talked about this, I saw Michaela becoming frustrated. Eventually she spoke up- “So why did Jesus have to die? What was his mission if not to rescue, to save?”

I have been thinking about this question and the discussion we had the other night. Unsurprisingly, it leaves me with more questions;

If there has been a ‘fall’ of man, is it really the kind of fall I grew up talking about- one of individual sin, inherited by each subsequent generation as part of our human DNA? This kind of ‘fall’ keeps us trapped in the old Platonic polarity. It allowed Evangelical Christianity to focus on private morality to the exclusion of almost all else and  the purpose of the death of Jesus in this understanding is to give a chosen few backdoor perfection– undeserved, but gloriously exclusive.

But there is this other version of the fall of man(kind) encountered in Genesis. It is a fall upwards- away from our root and branch engagement in the soil of the world that we live in- towards enclosure and management of the land first for storage of food, then for personal profit. The more we have the more we want and our ambitions grow to the sky like the tower of Babel. Then there is this word again- Empire. If there is a polar opposite to the Shalom of Elohim it is Empire. Power used and abused. Richness accumulated at the point of sword and on the backs of the slavery of others. From Genesis to Revelation this the Bible is shadowed by Empire. This fall is not an individual one, it is collective.

But Elohim does not retreat even from Empire. He is there in and through it all. Hating some of it, raging against it sometimes- particularly when his people accommodated with it- even became the enslavers themselves.

Back to Michaela’s question- Jesus death, in relation to this collective fall can be understood clearly in his own use of the words of Isaiah, spoken from exile, in slavery to empire;

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61

Here it is- the kernel of the nut. The Shalom of Elohim; the New Kingdom. A totally different kind of empire. One based on love of one another, on the joy of life and the refusal of the power of Empire.

The first kind of fall- the individualistic perfect/fallen polarity seems to have allowed for Christianity to exist within empire with hardly a ripple. It allows us to set aside the revolutionary stuff and focus on saving the few for the really important stuff, not the Aristotelian stuff of boring reality, but the Platonic promise of eternal perfection.

But the New Kingdom can not exist in the other kind of fallen world without challenging empire. We can not live alongside poverty, injustice disease, broken lives, etc without wishing, praying, working upon it the Shalom of Elohim.

Or can we? The forces of empire are strong after all…

Michaela told a story right at the end of a place she had worked- a job that was supposed to be all about community building- encouraging participation and engagement with marginalised people and groups. A new manager came in who knew all the language, but seemed driven only towards establishing and using power; she was building an empire. The rules of the organisation had changed overnight. Suddenly success was measured by a business model- by conquests won over other ‘competing’ community groups. It tore Michaela apart.

And there you have it; the shalom of God opened wide, but the Empire rises again. But Elohim is waiting…

Thy will be gun…

Thanks to Graham for this- it hits at the heart of the ‘Christian Nation’ nonsense, at a time when the worlds only superpower is starting to decline…

America stands in a long line of previous Empires who employ Jesus as a military-industrial figurehead to justify all sorts of things that are simply incompatible with any understanding of what Jesus died for. From Constantine to Queen Victoria.

Gunpowder, Empire and old industry…

I took a walk out into the woods with my friend Simon this afternoon. I had been wanting to explore an old overgrown collection of buildings out along Glen Lean for a while. The last time we tried, the heavens opened, but today the sun was shining- until we got there that is, but this time we decided that a little rain should not put us off.

The old buildings were part of the former Argyll Gunpowder works, which operated over 4 sites in the county from around 1840 to 1903.

There is very little information about the Glen Lean site on the web- apart from this entry on Secret Scotland. There is however a good article by Kennedy McConnell summarising the history of one of the other locations where gunpowder was manufactured in this area (near Tighnabruaich on the other side of the peninsular) here.

It tells of a time when Argyll was famous for its manufacture of fine quality gunpowder, which was exported all over the world.

Powder used to blast and shoot our way towards the creation of an Empire.

Here is a quote from McConnell’s article-

The conversion of the raw materials from Kames into gunpowder at Millhouse required ten separate processing stages, each accommodated in a specially constructed building known as a “house”. A detailed description of these processes is outwith the scope of this article, but the names used to identify the various houses were Mixing, Charging, Breaking-down, Pressing, Corning, Dusting, Glazing, Stoving, Heading-up and Packing, These processing houses were widely dispersed throughout the grounds to minimise the risk of an explosion spreading from one building to another. Trees were planted in the intervening spaces for the same reason. Horse drawn bogeys were used to convey the goods around the works, and these ran on a small gauge railway system. The production machinery was driven by water power.

It was a dangerous business. He lists a whole series of accidents and explosions in which as many as nine people died. I think we can assume a similar history in Glen Lean.

The location of these mills was no doubt chosen at least in part because of their remoteness, as well as the availability of water power and raw materials. Whole communities developed that were dependent on the mills for work, and were decimated when we found more efficient ways of blowing each other to kingdom come, and so closed the mills one after the other.

I suppose you could say that this area has continued the tradition of providing the means of causing very large explosions. The Faslane naval base, location of the nuclear submarines, is just across the water from here.

Walking round the old buildings today was a walk through our military-industrial history. They are being swallowed by the encroaching trees, like an Aztec temple in the rain forest.

There has been no attempt locally to make this part of our history known. No footpaths into the site- you will need some serious footwear to get anywhere near it- and certainly no interpretive history boards.

Soon it will all fall into the river below.

The whole thing seems to be to be a poignant visual analogy of Empire. Our former means of producing arms and ammunition have mouldered away. Obscured and forgotten in a forest of new trees.

And much of what we were, I am glad to leave behind.

And yet there is something still that pulls at me with pangs of regret. Memories of a something precious that we might also have lost. A simpler, more idealistic time, where all things seemed possible.

Or perhaps these are constructed memories, projected onto these old walls.

Old ruins like this tend to foster this kind of thinking.